Neuron Culture

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David Sloan Wilson, an atheist himself, has a few things to relate to ‘angry atheists’ like Richard Dawkins.

I piss off atheists more than any other category, and I am an atheist. One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion. Their beef is not just that there is no evidence for God. They also insist that religion “poisons everything”, as Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book. They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the “secular utility” of religion, as Émile Durkheim put it, even though they wrap themselves in the mantle of science and rationality. Someone needs to call them out on that, and that person is me.

While I understand the anger that drive Hitchens and Dawkins, I have trouble understanding talk of eliminating religion because it would make the world a more rational place. Eliminate religion? Good luck. It’s odd to hear people sworn to empircal reasoning indulge in hopes so wildly unrealistic.

The bit above is taken from a short Sloan interview in Nature. Easily worth the short read.

Comments

  1. #1 Katharine
    May 26, 2010

    The beneficial aspects of religion are entirely possible to recreate without it. It just takes a little more effort. You can have community and have some rituals. You just need to make those things yourself.

    “They also insist that religion “poisons everything”, as Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book. They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the “secular utility” of religion”

    You’re connecting ‘is’ to ‘ought’ here, at least for part of your statement. Yes. I think religion poisons everything. Mostly because it’s not fact-based and it fosters things such as homophobia, creobottery, sexism, racism, et cetera, and the more liberal threads of it I see as enabling the nastier ones.

  2. #2 steve
    May 26, 2010

    Since it is a fact that there are lots of atheists around, is it really so ‘wildly unrealistic’?

    I am not saying it is likely during my lifetime, but it possible.

    Live in fear, or act in hope!

  3. #3 Bryan
    May 26, 2010

    Gills were an evolutionary benefit at one time as well but I don’t have any. Do you?

  4. #4 Sierra
    May 26, 2010

    Why is it wildly unrealistic? Because religion has existed since God created Adam? If you accept evolution then there must have been a time when our direct ancestors did not have religious belief and practice.

    Yet these practices evolved because they didn’t have the scientific method or data. That has changed, courtesy of the internet.

    As the number of children growing up with internet access increases, we’ll see generational shifts away from religious practice. This will be reflected in other generational shifts, like the gap between old and young support for gay marriage.

    It will also show up in spontaneous attacks on religion such as the Anonymous protests against Scientology. It wasn’t elderly pastors protesting (they were too busy doing damage control on the internet-disseminated sex abuse scandal). It was teens and young adults.

  5. #5 walter
    May 26, 2010

    It is useful to view religion as an entity that can evolve and adapt, aside from its possible benefits or drawbacks. I do not believe religion will ever “disappear” or go away, but it will very likely evolve and transform into something else. I think we can already see the future shape of religion in its embryonic form; I am talking of our consumer culture and brand identity. Religious fervor wanes with the increase in consumerism, maybe that is because brand identity, express through the ritual of consumerism, replaces old forms of worship for new ones. In the past I was a catholic, protestant whatever, now I am a (name favorite brand).

  6. #6 Scott
    May 26, 2010

    If religion disappeared today, you’d just have 6 billion just-as-gullible, just-as-outgroup-fearing, just-as-superstitious people on the planet. Would that be a better place? Maybe a little, but a lot of the new atheists seem to think that just getting rid of religion will solve a huge chunk of the problems in the world right now, and I just don’t see it. And seriously, how do you plan on getting rid of religion in the first place?

    The only way I see a future without religion (or with it marginalized) is to push the hell out of skepticism in school, the limitations of the mind, just how similar we all are, etc., and that will take massive amounts of research, and implementation will be insane, especially in the more religiously entrenched parts of the world. It’s doable, but the end of religion is not going to happen in any current individual’s lifetime (and doing away with relgion shouldn’t even be the focus of such a program, anyways).

    I unlike a lot of other atheists, don’t see religion as the disease, but as a symptom.

  7. #7 Chem undergrad
    May 26, 2010

    @ 1
    Katherine, could you please explain the term “creobottery?” I’m not familiar with the word and my Google search isn’t turning anything up.

  8. #8 Tenebras
    May 26, 2010

    The world would undoubtedly be a better place without religion. I’m not naive enough to think it’s ever going to happen though. To get rid of religion you’d have to actually promote critical thinking, have a society where intelligence was a virtue instead of something to be laughed at, have a educational system that actually focused on learning instead of memorization, where being gullible and ignorant were traits universally frowned upon.

    Like that’s ever going to happen. Too many people get their paychecks from the gullible and the ignorant for that to ever occur.

  9. #9 Daniel Murphy
    May 27, 2010

    I’ve read most of Dawkins’ books, and perhaps a fourth of Hitchens’. I’ve not gotten the impression that their writings on atheism/religion are “driven” by anger. I’ve not heard them deny that religion can have “beneficial aspects” — “secular utility.” But name one of those benefits that can’t be had without religion. In the interview Wilson names three:

    “Benefits include defining the group, coordinating action to achieve shared goals and developing elaborate mechanisms to prevent cheating.”

    As if none of that can be had without religion?

    And it’s disappointing that Wilson’s criticism of Hitchen’s “poisons everything” subtitle seems to willfully misunderstand it. I’ve also read and enjoyed two of Wilson’s books, but I don’t appreciate his frequent self-positioning as not one of those “angry” atheists. Perhaps he feels he’s being reasonable, scientific, and respectfully accommodating of religious viewpoints. But he comes across — I’m not one of those loud, insistent, disrespectful athiests! — as a tad sanctimonious.

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